Homeless vacated from site

Benny Westcott

Camping at the parking lot outside Sweet Home’s old City Hall building during daytime hours is no longer allowed, according to a Sweet Home Police Department notice at the site that went into effect Monday, April 4.

Posted March 15, the document reads: “This area is public property and as such, encampments are illegal. All subjects who are camping here must vacate this area by April 4, 2022. All persons that fail to vacate the area within that time frame are subject to arrest for Criminal Trespass II (ORS 164.245).”

Police Chief Jeff Lynn, who recommended the notice after consulting with the Sweet Home Fire District and others, said that camping would be permitted at night, but only on the parking lot’s north side, in less than one-third of the previous encampment’s area.

The fact that the fire district needs part of the encampment space to park vehicles for its Main Station No. 21 upgrade beginning in mid-April as part of a seismic grant factored into Lynn’s decision.

Fire Chief Dave Barringer said he also intends to use the old City Hall building as a training facility, now that the notice to vacate is in effect.

The decision displaces potentially 28 people at the location as of March 31. Community Services Officer Sean Morgan estimated that 45 homeless individuals in total resided in and around Sweet Home, as of that date.

The notice included a partial list of Linn County services for assistance with food and/or shelter, like Helping Hands and Second Chance Shelter, both in Albany. However, according to Lebanon-based Family Assistance and Resource Center Executive Director Shirley Byrd, neither facility has room. “Both of those shelters are overwhelmed with the sick and the elderly,” she said.

The police “call load” at 1140 12th Ave. has increased significantly since the makeshift camp was established. Officers reported to the area 10 times for incidents in 2020, a number that ballooned to 71 in 2021.

Approximately 53 calls to the area were made between Sept. 1 to Dec. 31, 2021. During the ensuing four-month period, from Jan. 1 to March 31, 2022, that number leaped to 62.

Lynn called the current parking lot situation “unacceptable.”

“It’s kind of gotten out of control,” he said. “The health and cleanliness over there are appalling. It was never intended as a permanent camp; it was intended to help people get through the winter.”

Lynn likened it to the spring 2021 disbandment of the Nazarene Church camp in response to improved weather conditions. He said there was less weather-related concern now than in the winter.

“We decided it was the appropriate time to adjust what was occurring,” he said.

The police department, along with members of the FAC and Linn County Mental Health, were on site Monday to assist as the notice went into effect.

“We don’t want to create drama or trauma,” Lynn said, noting that individuals at the homeless camp understood the changes that were going to take place. He wasn’t certain what they would do.

“Some will probably remain in and around the area during the day, and some are going to find other options,” he said.

People were required to retrieve their belongings and leave the area at 7 a.m., and weren’t allowed to set up again until 8 or 9 p.m.

Regarding night encampment, Lynn said, “It’s very important for us to follow the statute [the 2018 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Martin v. Boise decision] and give people a place where they can come and set up a tent to protect themselves from the elements.”

Byrd expressed dissatisfaction that encampment would not be allowed during the day.

“Although plans for a permanent sleeping space are continuing to move forward, it is disheartening that the camp would be posted at this time,” she said.

Linn County has agreed to give a piece of its property east of Bi-Mart to FAC for the construction of a community outreach and resource center that could serve as a more permanent shelter.

FAC Project Manager Brock Byers reported that the property ownership deed’s transfer from the county to the FAC is expected soon.

A clear completion date for the center has yet to be determined.